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2 April 2022

The EU now has to get tough on illiberal Orbán

Now is the time to force Hungary’s prime minister to desist from his cynical exploitation of European goodwill.

By Mujtaba Rahman

BRUSSELS – Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, has a strong portfolio of positive qualities. One is charm. In his presence, even critics admit to feeling the man’s powerful magnetism. The extension of charm in professional terms is public relations: Orbán loves PR – and he spares no expense on it.

That is one reason the former liberal anti-communist student agitator is set to win his fourth consecutive general election tomorrow (3 April). He and his Fidesz party have won five in total, with its first coming in 1998. Fast forward to spring 2010, and they had long rebranded as centre-right conservatives. With a two thirds constitutional majority in parliament, Orbán felt and acted emboldened as never before.

It is by using his personal charm in tandem with innovative PR that he has fooled so many for so long. They include highly intelligent friends and aides, professionals, seasoned diplomats, foreign politicians and, for sure, his counterparts in Europe – in EU capitals and Brussels.

This has to stop. His blatant misuse of EU taxpayers’ money is a cancerous risk to the very existence of the EU and all it has achieved since the Second World War. The fact that Brussels is now engulfed in trying to handle the overt Russian threat is not an excuse for inaction. Indeed, to save and protect the Union, now is the time to force Orbán to desist from his cynical exploitation of European decency and goodwill.  

[See also: What would four more years of Viktor Orbán mean for Hungary?]

After he returned to power in 2010, his administration set about rewriting the constitution (or “fundamental law”) with only superficial cross-party consultation. The controversial result involved wide-ranging changes, ranging from the seemingly innocuous – defining the country as simply “Hungary”, dropping the title of “Republic” – to more worrying reforms affecting the appointments of state officials, the judiciary, the constitutional court and election law.

The latter was particularly vexatious, with the new 106 single-member constitution boundaries frequently indicating gerrymandering practices.

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The European Commission was also alerted by the lowering of the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62, widely seen as a way to remove older, less sympathetic figures to Fidesz lawmakers’ conservative ideals. Although the European Court of Justice later ruled the new mandatory age was incompatible with European law, very few of the affected judges returned to their former duties.

The enactment of the fundamental law can be seen as initiating a long series of battles with the European Commission, European Parliament and other EU bodies over legislation and policies that have collided with European norms ever since.

Examples range from the licensing of the tobacco retail sector to the recognition of churches and the regulation of NGOs.

In addition, examples began to emerge of corruption via procurement procedures involving the massive misuse of EU funds, usually linked to companies close to the government; the spectacular reduction of independent media outlets; and discriminative measures against homosexuals, all painting a picture of a rapidly deteriorating state of the rule of law.

[See also: How Hungary’s elite made a fortune from the EU]

On the international stage, Hungary’s cosying up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia – including a €12bn untendered contract to build a new, Russian-designed and funded nuclear power plant – and to China, have raised more questions about where Orbán’s long-term aspirations lie.

By 2020, the outcry in Brussels had reached a point at which the European Commission had to act. Following the failure of Hungary to present a clear and detailed plan to access the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility (meant to aid EU economies to recover from the Covid pandemic), the commission declined to make any payments without more detailed clarifications.

Budapest protested, claiming the commission’s decision was politically motivated by “left-wing” and “[George] Soros-funded institutions” – both go-to excuses that work among Fidesz voters at home – but the EU has thus far stood its ground.

Then, Russia invaded Ukraine.

With Hungary’s eastern border abutting Ukraine, Orbán’s reaction has been to support all initial EU sanctions against Russia. But he has steadfastly refused to agree any moves to cut energy ties to Moscow, claiming it would cause a disproportionate burden on the population and economy, as Hungary is largely dependent on Russian gas for its energy needs.

At home, after some confusion, the vast state-controlled media began to disseminate pro-Russian views of the conflict, so much so that a significant segment of Fidesz voters believe Ukraine is as much to blame for the war as Russia.  

While the opposition claims the election is about whether Hungary moves towards the West and democracy or the east and dictatorship, Orbán has cast his election campaign as a choice between himself as peacemaker and the opposition as warmongers. He alone is the wise author of “strategic calm”, and is the only guarantor and protector of Hungarian security.

It is this that has cemented his ratings in the polls, putting him on track to win on 3 April.

Where will this leave the EU as it tries to cope with the threat of Russia?

For some, it means an inevitable retreat with regards to the maverick Hungarian. If Brussels wants his cooperation over Russia, it can hardly be punishing Orbán by holding back EU funds, however justified its concerns.

But gaining Orbán’s vote on tough issues, particularly energy sanctions, may not necessarily mean forsaking European values. Hungary has large gas storage capacity, and after a mild winter, a cessation of supplies from Russia would not mean the instant collapse of its economy, even though Orbán argues otherwise. With conditional EU financial support and careful allocation of alternative sources, Hungary could survive the summer without any shortages.

But having given a slew of pre-election handouts, state coffers are largely empty. So Orbán arguably needs EU funding as much as the EU needs him to help tame Putin.

The wily Orbán and his PR operation will be working at full output, both at home and abroad to argue his case.

Having wasted billions oiling the machinery of Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian regime over the past 12 years, thereby helping him retain power through cronies and discretionary payments to powerful friends, EU leaders would only be further undermining European values – and Hungarian aspirations – with yet more appeasement of the Hungarian advocate for illiberal democracy.

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